UPDATE: Plan to change election primary stalls in Assembly

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A plan to move Wisconsin’s fall primary back a month stalled late Tuesday in the state Assembly after Democrats used a procedural move to delay a vote.

The primary is currently held on the second Tuesday in September, about a month and half before the November general election. State election officials worry that’s not enough time to guarantee compliance with federal mandates that require states to get ballots to overseas and military voters ahead of federal elections. The U.S. Justice Department has threatened to sue the state if it doesn’t move to comply.

The Wisconsin Senate passed a bill in June that moves the primary to the second Tuesday in August. The Assembly took up the bill Tuesday night, but tweaked the language. Republicans who control the Assembly were about to vote to send the changes back to the Senate when minority Democrats objected to voting. The procedural move means the earliest Republicans could bring the bill back for a vote is next Tuesday.

The move marks another twist in a long squabble between Democrats and Republicans — and even between some members of the GOP — over changing the primary date.

At the heart of the dust-up is the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, or MOVE. Congress passed the law in 2009 in an attempt to ensure overseas and military voters have enough time to receive their ballots and return them in time to be counted. The act requires states to mail ballots at least 45 days before a federal election.

Worried they couldn’t meet the 45-day requirement in time for the Nov. 2, 2010 elections, Wisconsin election officials reached an agreement in federal court last fall that gave overseas voters until Nov. 19 to get their ballots back. But that was a stop-gap measure, at best, and the U.S. Justice Department has said it would sue the state if lawmakers don’t make permanent changes to ensure compliance.

Republicans who control the Senate and Assembly introduced bills in May moving the primary back to August. Minority Democrats have complained the new date would make it more difficult for students — one of their key constituencies — to vote because they’re often moving that month.

Still, Senate Republicans passed their bill in June. They added language to the bill, though, that requires municipal clerks to email ballots only to overseas or military voters. That move represented a major shift from current Wisconsin law, which requires clerks to email ballots to anyone who asks. The change also clashed with the Assembly’s bill, which included the requirement that clerks email overseas and military voters but still allowed them to honor email requests from other voters.

Nothing moved for the better part of five months. Wary of threat of the Justice Department’s lawsuit, state election officials invited federal election officers to Madison earlier this month to pressure legislators and the governor to take action. Assembly Republicans finally scheduled their bill for a vote Tuesday.

As the bill came up for floor debate, though, they swapped it for the Senate version.

Rep. Gary Tauchen, R-Bonduel, chairman of the Assembly’s election committee and the Assembly bill’s main sponsor, said he was now on board with the Senate’s email prohibitions. Tauchen and Rep. Jeff Stone, R-Greendale, another member of the election committee, said clerks across the state want to use traditional mail to get ballots to domestic voters because one uniform delivery method simplifies the process.

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said those explanations made no sense.

“We should be pushing to the maximum degree possible to make it easier for people to access the ballot,” Barca said.

Assembly Republicans made a number of revisions to the Senate bill, though. They changed deadlines for pre-primary paperwork to reflect the August date and added a provision that allows state residents to get duplicate state identification cards for free. Current state law that requires voters to show photo identification at the polls grants one free card to anyone who asks, but it requires people pay for a duplicate. Tauchen said that change could cost the state up to $500,000.

The Republicans were preparing to send the changes to the Senate when Rep. Fred Kessler, D-Milwaukee, objected. Republicans failed to muster the two-thirds majority vote to overcome the objection.